More From “How The Other Half Ate”

In her book, How The Other Half Ate, Katherine Turner says that:

“… most middle-class people could afford to hire one or two servants,” and that “the kitchen was a place for cooks and maids to work unobtrusively. Ideally, the heat, noises, and smells of cooking would be completely blocked from the semi-public social areas of the home, such as the parlor or sitting room.”

Most Americans at the time were not middle-class, they were working class. They were the “cooks and maids” in the excerpt above hired for domestic work, who returned home in the evening to a tenement that had no running water, little food, and likely no electricity. Sometimes they worked into the night doing piece work to supplement their income.

When people tell us we should eat like our great-grandparents, they cannot mean eating stale bread spread with lard (lard that was rancid, contaminated with spit, animal feces, dirt, pathogenic organisms, and some bleach to cover it up, since it likely came from Chicago’s meatpacking stockyards, which at the time processed more meat than any place in the world), as our great-grandparents did.

NewYorkTenement3

December 1912: “High up on the top floor of a rickety tenement, 214 Elizabeth St., N.Y., this mother and her two children, boy 10 years old and the girl 12, were living in a tiny one room, and were finishing garments. The garments were packed under the bed and on top of it and around the room. Said the make from $1 to $2 a week, and the boys [sic] earns some selling newspapers” Library of Congress.

The photo is one of thousands taken by Lewis Hine for the National Child Labor Committee. From these photographs, the living conditions of the working class at that time were deplorable, whether they lived in cities or on farms.

Turner said that eggs were their cheapest in April when they sold for 15 cents a dozen. That’s about a tenth of this woman’s weekly income. Imagine today, if you earned $10/hr, $400/wk, you’d be paying $40 for a dozen eggs.  In April.

One thought on “More From “How The Other Half Ate”

  1. Bix Post author

    The thing is … this lifestyle was the rule, not the exception. Anyone who had enough to eat, or, above and beyond that, ate well, belonged to an elite class. It’s that class we see in old movies and read about in stories of the time. It did not reflect the plight of most people.

    It was around this time, 1906, that the FDA was born. Food was utterly contaminated, and the lack of regulation made some people and businesses rich, and those people and businesses fought regulation tooth and nail. It’s so reminiscent of today. (Recall George Carlin’s, “They don’t care about you … at all … at all … at all.”) No matter how hobbled the FDA is, we should be thankful we have it.

    I can only conclude that when people say our great-grandparent ate well, they are referring to the wealthy. Right then, “Eat like the wealthy.”

    Reply

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